Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Poetry: The Reviser's Knife

Although Past Wyoming Poet Laureate Pat Frolander was unable to attend the recent WyoPoets workshop, the material she sent to share for the afternoon session, The Reviser's Knife, offered great insight into how to a poem into something truly special.

"Distillation in poetry is a purification of words." Once a poem is drafted, it is time to get out the Reviser's Knife. Too often, though, writers find it hard to know where to start when revising a poem.

"Any writer who wants to excel at their craft must learn to edit," Frolander said. "I also think editing is one of the most difficult things to teach."

In the materials she sent to the WyoPoets workshop. Frolander shared the knowledge she had learned over the years, with her thanks to Bearlodge Writers and workshops she has attended. These were the specific set of steps she offered for poetry revision:

  • Experience: Know your subject and maintain your theme. The theme should be apparent as the author begins and ends the poem.
  • Research: Ground it in good, strong detail. Reach beyond your personal experience and do research on a topic or sub-topic to broaden your audience.
  • Execution: Use metaphors or similes, but make them "fresh." Metaphor and simile are quite different, but are commonly confused. A good book is like a good meal. A simile suggesting that a book may be as (mentally) nourishing and satisfying as a meal. A wire is a road for electrons. A metaphor suggesting that electrons actually do use a wire as a road to travel on.
  • Words Bear Freight: Get rid of inactive words. Word choice is the single most important thing she says poets should think about during revision. "Of all the tools I have been given by authors, this has been the most effective one."
  • Punctuate: Create form-stop writing in the middle of sentences. Don't make it difficult for the reader to understand your poem.
  • Show, Don't Tell: Use senses -- sight, sound, etc. The place were most people tell, not show, is dealing with emotions. Use an image to show the emotion that allows the reader to experience the sentiment. When using adjectives, make them fresh, revealing a different way to view things, to open up the poem.
  • Execution: Use figurative language sparingly. Avoid cliches.
  • Read Your Poetry Aloud: Often the best way to pick up the stumbles, repeated words and awkward rhythms. Reading aloud also builds your poise and confidence for the next step.
  • Present Your Work: Reading aloud to a group is a wonderful bridge to join you with the listener.

She recommends Ted Kooser's The Poetry Home Repair Manual for more great information on revising a poem. "It is a poet's best friend." 

Are you in a critique group and hesitant to offer advice when another member shares their poetry? "Each of us has learned an editing skill," Frolander said. "The key to sharing is to offer it with the caveat, 'This helps me; perhaps it might help you.'"

Poets often share a weakness: "Rushing the writing is usually a blind spot. It appears many writers edit two or three times and feel their work is complete. The writing may be, but more often than not, it isn’t."

Lest someone think a Wyoming Poet Laureate is past all that, she confessed she has the same blind spot. "Forcing myself to put the work away for a few weeks to a month after the first set of revisions serves me well."

What are some of the best ways you've found to revise poetry --either your own, or that of others. Do you find yourself using the techniques Pat Frolander recommends?


  1. Great advice. I was especially intrigued by the "research" category. I'd never thought of researching my topic. But it makes sense.

    1. Thanks, Luana! I'm glad you found it helpful.

      It can be a challenge sometimes to communicate that research in the poem in a way that the reader will understand, but it's still a poem. I have one where I had to research Schrodinger's Cat (a quantum physics thing) and then work it in. I've also been in a few discussions recently where some of the things we assume are common knowledge aren't for some readers.


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